Candidates for Soldotna City Council attend a forum at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Candidates for Soldotna City Council attend a forum at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna council candidates discuss city development, COVID response at forum

Jordan Chilson, Erick Hugarte, Dan Nelson and Micah Shields participated in the event.

Candidates vying for seats on the Soldotna City Council gathered Wednesday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to field questions about city issues ahead of the Oct. 5 municipal election. Hosted by the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, the event featured Jordan Chilson, Erick Hugarte, Dan Nelson and Micah Shields.

Linda Farnworth-Hutchings, who is running unopposed for Seat A on the council, opted to defer her time to candidates running for contested seats and did not participate. Farnsworth-Hutchings was appointed to her seat on the council in December 2020 and has previously served on the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the State of Alaska Workers Compensation Board.

Jordan Chilson currently serves on the Soldotna City Council, to which he was elected in 2018, and works as a network engineer for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. In a previous interview with the Clarion, Chilson said preservation and expansion of the City of Soldotna’s greenspace is one of his top priorities.

Erick Hugarte also currently serves on the council, to which he was appointed earlier this year, and previously served on the Soldotna Planning and Zoning Commission. Hugarte, who is originally from El Paso, Texas, has been candid in interviews with the Clarion, his interview before the city council and during Wednesday’s forum about his past struggles with substance abuse and recovery, as well as his criminal history.

Hugarte pleaded guilty to, and was convicted of, two counts of assault in the fourth degree stemming from a 2013 domestic violence incident in which he strangled another person until they were nearly unconscious, according to documents filed in the Kenai District Court. Hugarte said in a June interview with the Clarion that he was arrested later that day in connection with the assault, for which he also served jail time.

Dan Nelson is the former emergency manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough and now runs his own business in emergency management on the central Kenai Peninsula. As emergency manager, he helped coordinate large-scale COVID-19 vaccination clinics on the central peninsula and told the Clarion in a previous interview that the transition period has given him time to run for council.

Shields is a small business owner who owns and operates Small Town Coffee Roasters, Inc. and Narrow Road Productions. He told the Clarion in a previous interview that he formerly worked at an orphanage for disabled children in Peru in South America, but returned to Alaska to start a family.

Among other things, the four candidates fielded questions about the city’s budget, city collaboration with other municipalities on the peninsula and the role of the city council as it relates to that of city administration.

All candidates said they agree with the way the City of Soldotna has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as it relates to the distribution of federal CARES Act funds. In all, Soldotna received about $10 million in CARES Act funds, about 75% of which went to Soldotna businesses, nonprofits and residents.

“I’m really proud of our ability to work with community stakeholders and get a number of programs off the ground to really support those that need it,” Chilson said, specifically highlighting the city’s successful shop local program, which had an economic impact of about $850,000 in the city.

Shields said that it is “tough” to criticize decisions the city made about COVID-19 and that they did “the best with what they were given,” but that COVID has caused community divisions and been used as “a weapon.”

“There’s a lot of division and I think it’s really important moving forward that the city kind of pays attention to how they’re promoting that division or not,” Shields said. “That would be my only concern.”

Candidates also shared their visions for future development in the city. Among the major projects the City of Soldotna has considered in recent years include riverfront redevelopment, construction of a new visitor center and a field house at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

Hugarte and Shields addressed concerns Soldotna residents have had about tax increases that may be necessary to help fund the projects, but that the projects would add value to Soldotna.

“Both projects would be great for our city,” Hugarte said.

Nelson agreed.

“We could certainly find a way to jumpstart one or two of those with some sort of grant funding or infrastructure funding,” Nelson said. “ … I think it would be very, very good for the city to be looking at some of those things as we see those opportunities coming down the pike.”

Unlike the City of Kenai, the City of Soldotna has designated city council seats. Hugarte and Nelson are running against each other for Seat B on the council, while Chilson and Shields are running against each other for Seat C on the council.

Wednesday’s forum can be viewed in full on the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page. More Clarion coverage of the Oct. 5 municipal election can be found at peninsulaclarion.com/tag/elections.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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